Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Did Rome Fall?

Don’t expect the definitive answer to that one! I can only tell you today about the causes Edward Gibbon assigns to history’s favorite catastrophe. In fact, I can really only report on the causes Gibbon has mentioned in the pages I’ve read. His monumental classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, encompasses 4,000 to 5,000 pages in unabridged print editions, pages containing altogether over a million and a half words. Since, according to, War and Peace comes to only 562,579 words, Gibbon’s history is nearly three times as long as what’s proverbially considered fiction’s lengthiest achievement. I’ve read about 7% of those 5,000 pages by now – a mere 100,000 words. So, no, I don’t have the definitive answer. But I have the beginnings of one.

Along the way of recounting the saga of crowns and conflicts, Gibbon takes the opportunity to deliver several lessons on life, a charming habit sadly left unindulged by many modern historians (and most music historians). Just yesterday, for instance, in a section devoted to the third-century emperor Decius’ sincere attempt to reestablish the office of censor, I read this: “A censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state.” (I love the Latin convention of linking sentences by a shared grammatical object and then leaving that object unstated in the first clause. And I love seeing the idiom find its way into Gibbon’s style.) In other words, national rectitude must be popular; it can’t simply be decreed.

Some of Gibbon’s lessons come from his reflection on the different levels of culture and education that he finds in the various societies taking part in his story. “The use of letters,” he concludes, “is the principle circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection.” It might be guessed that Gibbon would not have included “plz” or “lmao” in his conception of a civilizing use of letters. Again with the Goths in mind, Gibbon observes that money “is the most universal incitement, iron the most powerful instrument, of human industry.” In other words, civilization depends partly on the metals the ground offers to its inhabitants. I once read a high-school American history text written around 1900 that began by acknowledging the propitious abundance and variety of natural resources afforded by the North American continent. By comparison, the high-school history text I actually read in high school started with explorers; in other words, its (hidden) lesson was that people can take all the credit for their successes.

As for The Lesson that his title promises, Gibbon actually cites an exact moment at which the decline began. After the death of Septimius Severus in 211, his son Caracalla paid the Praetorian Guard an exorbitant sum to secure his accession to the imperial throne. After this, Gibbon explains, the Guard and the legions who sometimes competed with them in the game of emperor-making, came to expect only riches from their Commander-in-Chief rather than discipline. And once a nation’s fighting force obtains a sense of entitlement, it gains political power, making the Senate weak, and loses military power, making the neighbors hungry.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Far Frae Home

A little over a year ago in this blog, I posted about Prof. Jane Vogel’s view of Thomas Hardy. In short, she says that Hardy’s relationship with Christianity was that of a man who loved and longed for a religion he thought was not true. And in reading several of his poems last year, I found traces of that sentiment everywhere I looked. Hardy packed those lyrics with melancholy regret that the values and ideas of the Christian religion were (as far as he could see) not true, that the beauties and sentiments of the faith didn’t ultimately point to anything. Hardy, it seemed to me, pined for a home he believed nonexistent.

His novel The Mayor of Casterbridge picks up right where the poems left off. I’ve read about a third of it now, and I’ve already encountered the word “melancholy” several times. People are melancholy. Locations are melancholy. Melodies are melancholy. One of the main characters (and in my mind the most interesting character to this point), the Scotsman Daniel Farfrae, carries melancholy with him everywhere he goes in the form of his name. “Frae” is Scots dialect for “from,” and in the southern region of Wessex, where the novel takes place, Daniel finds himself far frae Scotland indeed.

In an early scene, he stops at one of the town’s inns and sings a song about his homeland that enraptures all the Englishmen present. They’ve never heard anyone sing about longing for home before, says one, and the beautiful effect surprises them. Another says that he wishes southern England had flowers and lasses so bonnie that he could sing about his own home in the same way. That arresting idea first made me wonder if Daniel’s song and memory hadn’t slightly exaggerated the winsomeness of Scottish girls and their bouquets. But I ended up thinking that that second listener’s view encapsulates Hardy’s entire doleful outlook: the fictional character can’t help but respond to the powerful images and emotions of the song, just as Hardy must admit to the aesthetic charms of the Church, yet they both lament over the futile emptiness of the message.

But that character has in fact (well, in the facts of the imaginary world of the novel, anyway) seen lovely young women and fair vistas: Hardy explicitly describes them. In presenting his melancholy philosophy by symbol and allusion, Hardy, it seems, can’t help using analogies in which desires have actual objects. The melancholy song works because Scotland truly does have beautiful girls and beautiful flowers. The novel’s melancholy scene at a ruined Roman amphitheater works because an empire based on the banks of the Tiber really did reach to the isle of Albion. Why did Hardy suppose – and why should his readers suppose – that the melancholy scenes at churches are any different, that they don’t have any foundation in reality? As C. S. Lewis argued, the existence of hunger reliably indicates the existence of bread, even if it makes no promise that any given hungry person will receive any.

I don’t mean to condemn either Hardy or his writing because of all this, though. Quite to the contrary, his (in my experience) unique position makes for stirring stories and powerful poetry. And, as C. S. Lewis once again argued, this time in reference to his beloved heroes of Nordic myth, one has to admire the virtues of anyone who will continue to champion truth, goodness, and beauty even in the belief that these excellencies won’t win out against chaos in the end.

Monday, July 22, 2013

On Ambition

Both of the books I’m reading right now are full of ambitious people. Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms takes quite a long to time to get from one collapsing empire to just the three kingdoms of the title; in the mean time, a score or more princes and warlords make Machiavellian deals and vie for supremacy. And where generals and near relations aren’t grabbing for the throne in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, their mothers try to steal it for them. Throughout every page in these two books, I read about people seeking positions of power. And it occurs to me that, as familiar as this tale is, I don’t personally understand it.

If I wink and tilt my head the right way, I can imagine myself wanting power. But in every scenario I can conjure up, I always find myself wanting to do something with that power. A slightly different version of myself would conceivably look for a political platform from which to serve society: power for the sake of doing good for fellow humans. The less altruistic K.S. in the next parallel universe probably wants an office as a means to acquire money, which in turn makes it possible to obtain stuff he wants. I can search my human heart and find sympathy with the desire for position as a means to pleasure, as a means to gaining the freedom to do whatever I want, or as a means to achieving a widespread reputation that might make a business involving the selling of creative work more plausible. But a position for its own pleasures? A title? Sycophantic treatment? Special clothes and accoutrements as visible signs of authority? These things attract me not at all.

The story that really got me thinking along these lines is Gibbon’s account of the brief reign of Didius Julianus. The Praetorian Guard has just murdered Emperor Pertinax. They have become accustomed to receiving a generous gift from any new emperor, and Pertinax’s next of kin doesn’t seem rich enough to provide a suitable donative. So they rush to the ramparts of the palace and offer the throne of the Roman Empire to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus is dining with his wife and daughter when rumor, rushing through the streets, brings this unusual news to the door of their spacious home, and his family tells him it’s a golden opportunity to gain the position he deserves. So he runs to the palace, pays up, and receives the rule of two-and-a-half million square miles of civilization. The guardsmen readily take the money, but immediately regret empowering a fellow base enough to give it to them. Septimus Severus marches to Rome with his legions, and the Praetorian Guard beheads Didius and hails a new Caesar. As Gibbon puts it, Didius Julianus had “purchased, with an immense treasure, an anxious and precarious reign of only sixty-six days.”

So here’s a man who gave up money, security, freedom, and length of days to hold on for a moment to a word: imperator. The pages of history are filled with such tales. The stories make sense to me in that they follow a recognizable path, but I don’t really understand them.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Without a Program

Many years ago, I read an article in National Geographic by a woman who studied lions in Namibia. She mentioned returning to the field after an absence of some months and recognizing many of the familiar leonine faces she had grown to love and respect. The article included pictures, and I looked at one that showed several female lions and thought, “But they all look exactly alike to me.”

I think we register or interpret sensations according to what seems distinctive to us. And since I have little familiarity with lions, what appeared distinctive to me about the creatures inn that photo is precisely that they were lions. They stood out in the picture from the grass and the ground and the sky. I recognized them as quite a bit different from the zoologist. And so on. My mind took in those lions and filed them under “Lions,” not under “Flattail” and “Spot” and “Simba” and “Sally.” But with more experience, I fully believe that I would begin to discern the distinctive features of the animals so I could tell one from another, just as I’ve learned, for instance, to distinguish twins who looked exactly alike to me at first.

A couple of years ago, a Chinese student in my classes told me about Luo Guanzhong’s classic Chinese novel, Three Kingdoms. “Every boy and man in China has read this book,” she explained. “It’s our Lord of the Rings.” (Oh! that every boy and man in our country would read LOTR!) Naturally, a guy trying to educate himself in classic literature, when he hears a recommendation like that, tells himself that he has to read the book. And a few days ago, I finally got started. A little online research convinced me to bypass the Brewitt-Taylor translation, which did have the enticing virtue of being free, and to order Moss Roberts’s more recent rendition instead. The edition I bought comes in four paperback volumes, each having 500+ pages. So this is a daunting task I’ve taken on.

And then I open to page 1 and see all those Chinese names! A typical page includes at least twenty mentions of names, with few repeats. And when I see Chinese words and names, I have to admit that I react the same way I did when I saw those lions: the main thing that strikes me is their Chinese-ness. I see a lot of QI’s and NG’s and ZH’s, and my mind just tosses them all in the bin marked “Chinese” without worrying too much about the details.

So I knew I was going to have slow down and at least learn how to pronounce these words; that way I’d have a sound to remember as well as a sight. But that itself is no easy task. For one thing, the Chinese language uses several sounds that English doesn’t use, or at least doesn’t use in the same way: fricative CH’s with the tongue placed behind the lower teeth, explosive P’s like the P-H in “up here” except without the opening U, and so on. In addition, the current standard method for transliteration to roman characters bears only slight resemblance to the English pronunciation of the same letters. Chinese has no voiced B sound, so the character B is used for one of the P sounds. Chinese has no Z sound, so Z stands for a TS sound. X represents a hissy H something like the first sound in “huge” (if the first sound in “huge” is hissy). And Q stands for that sound with the tongue behind the lower teeth. It’s all quite confusing, but I went over and over the chart for several days, sorting it out, practicing my Q’s, ignoring the explosions, and trying to come up with something like sound memories for each of the names I saw. And it helps: I can tell you from memory right now who Yuan Shao is and who Yuan Shu is.

The sad thing is that my problem with names doesn’t apply only to Chinese. But with English names, I can’t blame an ignorance of spelling; I know it’s just a problem of not reading carefully enough and not recording accurately what I read. I’ve learned that I can keep a large cast of characters straight more easily if I can associate definite faces to them. When I read about the American Civil War, for instance, I pull out a file of generals’ portraits that I’ve put together. (Of course, I have to work at the portraits, as well, so my mind doesn’t register each as simply “bewhiskered nineteenth-century man.”) But sometimes in fiction, as well, I assign faces to characters as if casting a stage version. And I want to give a character not just a generic mental “pudgy” face or a generic mental “old” face, but a face I know. Sometimes I use faces of friends or students, and sometimes I actually use well-known actors. I’ve even occasionally made up faces and drawn them with characters’ names next to them.

The difficulty in Three Kingdoms is sorting itself out. Just by consciously dealing with these names for a few days, they’re starting to make distinct symbols in my mind. Now there’s just the problem of keeping straight hundreds of distinct names interacting in a series of intrigues and battles between scores of independent powers in ever-shifting alliances. Yikes!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Calvin and Jack

At a meeting of the Literary Club that I attended a couple of years ago, Dr. Johnson, Boswell, and their friends praised several books by Jonathan Swift as both instructive and delightful. At the time, I thought perhaps I would read one or two of them instead of rereading Gulliver’s Travels when the time came. But Swift came up on The Plan this year, and as it turned out, I went ahead and reread Gulliver. I’m very glad I did, because I had forgotten a lot of it and think I discovered more wisdom in it this time around.

But in addition, I picked one of the Club’s recommendations and read Swift's A Tale of a Tub. I chose it from among the other possibilities because I found out that it told the history of the Church allegorically, and that topic sounded especially interesting to me. But I had as much trouble reading A Tale of a Tub as I had fun reading its more famous cousin. The book certainly presents problems to the modern reader with its frequent Latin, its lengthy, complex sentences, and its eighteenth-century rhetorical panache. But I’ll dare to say that some of its problems might have been problems even in Swift's own time.

The book has two interspersed parts that alternate often: an allegorical presentation of the history of the Church in the lives of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack; and a satire on contemporary writing. The allegorical part falls into the pit that all allegory teeters on the edge of: it just isn't very interesting unless you think about what everything corresponds to. For instance, while it’s clear that the plain robes and will that their father left the brothers correspond to a simple faith and the Bible, and while it makes sense within the story as well as in the hidden meaning that the brothers would forget to read the will and start to adorn their simple clothing, I can’t find anything interesting or logical in the fact that the father’s dog keeper may have written a codicil. And the editor’s note that the dog keeper corresponds to the Tobit of the eponymous book of the Apocrypha doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Then the other part, the satire of contemporary writing, has two basic problems, the second of which, again, must have bothered some readers even in Swift’s day: (1) I don't know enough (or any?) of the inane eighteenth-century writing that Swift makes fun of, and (2) by imitating it so successfully, he naturally commits all of its errors, which is only funny for so long. How long, for example, can one laugh at a lengthy introduction about how the lengthiest introductions have absolutely nothing to say?

But I certainly enjoyed some of the details, and one of them I must share, especially in light of its pertinent timing in my reading schedule. Just a couple of weeks ago, I finished a large section in Calvin’s Institutes supposedly about proper Church government, but in actuality mostly about improper government: most of these chapters are devoted to saying that the Catholic Church has discarded every last shred of true Christianity. Then in A Tale of a Tub, Swift tells me that, when Jack (representing John Calvin) rails against his brother Peter (representing the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church), their brother Martin (representing Martin Luther) “begged his brother, of all love, . . . to consider that . . . Peter was still their brother, whatever faults or injuries he had committed” and not to base all his actions on opposition to Peter. I’m sure Dr. Johnson enjoyed this passage as well.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Yahoos Among Us

Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels contains the most scathing and important satirical critique of humanity in the book. Swift makes his point both by presenting the Yahoos of his imagination and by leading the reader to observe the all-too-real humanity all around us. In between these two groups and setting the standard for the judgment are the Houyhnhnms (in my head, I pronounce it “hooey-hinnums”), a race of intelligent horses.

Yahoo is one of the words that Swift introduced into our language; unlike Gulliver and Lilliputian, though, the word Yahoo, when it comes up in conversation, most likely raises no thoughts of Jonathan Swift in the minds of either speaker or listener. It usually just indicates an actual human who is stupid, crude, or out of control. Its acceptance in the language without ties to its source shows just how successful Swift was in getting his point across. In the novel, the Yahoos are humans without the power of reason. (Okay, they also have a streak of hair down their spines, like the mane of a horse, but otherwise, they’re human.) And it turns out that humans deprived of rational thought are stupid, crude, and out of control. To top it off, they’re possessive hoarders, and their self-centered, brutish squabbles over their possessions are especially cruel, even when compared with those of other animals.

The Houyhnhnms are just as amazed at finding Gulliver as you or I would be at stumbling across Mr. Ed, and they only very slowly come to accept him without having to show constant caution. But even after getting used to him, they find it hard to believe that whole nations of rational Yahoos live elsewhere in the world. So they ask Gulliver to tell them about home. And when he describes war, lawsuits, and crime, the noble equines determine that humans only misuse reason to indulge their natural cruelty and possessiveness. What should lead to peace and happiness, they tell Gulliver, humans apply only to selfish aims and so bring misery upon themselves.

If this reading plan of great books is to do me any good, I have to apply the lessons they teach. In this case, I have to measure myself by Swift’s yardstick. And in doing so, I have to admit that I spend a lot of time every day thinking and reasoning about how to serve myself – whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or even spiritually – with very little thought of others. So, while the word works well as an insult or descriptive epithet in certain cases, in reality, which of us is not a Yahoo?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Laputians Among Us

I hadn’t remembered anything about part III of Gulliver’s Travels other than that there was a land floating in the air. After about twenty years, I’ve read it again, and now I might see why I put it out of my memory: in this book Swift’s satire comes too close to home. The Laputians, who live on the gravity-defying island, are solely intellectual. Like their country, they aren’t grounded. And their favorite speculative topics are geometry and – wait for it – music theory. Ouch!

Each Laputian has one eye pointed to his breast and one eye pointed to the heavens. (What might Swift thought about Kant and “the starry skies above me and the moral law inside me”?) Almost completely unaware of the world around them, they have servants who slap their ears with balloons when someone is speaking and slap their mouths when it is time to respond. Do others really see music theorists as so detached from all meaningful life as this? Do my freshman?

This society of dreamy philosophers does have a practical side. The Laputians sponsor academies on the ground that work on “practical” problems. One teacher, for instance, has a scheme whereby any weak-minded ignoramus can write books of erudition. The method involves a large machine that randomizes words. Any time a sequence of words anywhere in the result shows grammatical logic, it gets written down. Then these workable sequences get strung together into longer sentences. I’m actually, truly surprised I haven’t heard of any present-day professor of poetry working to actualize this machine. (Now that I think of it, the project would much more likely come from someone in art or music.) I also must admit that I wouldn’t see the enterprise as totally frivolous. But then, as a professor of music theory, I am at the very pinnacle of the Laputian hierarchy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some Helpful Calvin

I’ve reported guardedly about my Calvin readings in past years. I’m in the middle of my 2013 assignment in the Institutes, and so I should record my thoughts again if it’s going to mean anything to have a blog about my reading plan. But I still feel a need for caution. I don’t want to argue with anyone about whether Calvin (or Calvinism) is right or wrong on any certain point; my experience tells me that these arguments don’t change either person and certainly don’t edify me. So once more I’ll just stick with my personal reaction, which can’t really be contradicted. (Hmmm. Ironically, I hope to avoid conflict by being subjective rather than objective.)

I usually find Calvin’s polemical style distasteful even when I agree with his content, which is admittedly most of the time. And this year the Genevan theologian has again set my teeth on edge. This time my fingernails have come into contact with the chalkboard of this statement: “I say nothing of the fact, that [clerical benefices] are conferred on barbers, cooks, grooms, and dross of that sort.” To imitate Calvin, I won’t quibble with him about claiming to say nothing about the very fact that he indeed says something about. But must he call barbers, cooks, and grooms “dross”? I’m not entirely sure what it means to call human beings dross unless it means that they constitute an undesirable element that remains after a trial by fire, a oddment fit only to be disposed of. So I must take the opportunity to support tonsorialists, chefs, and ostlers by professing my strongly held belief that their noble vocations don’t earn them automatic relegation to the trash heap. I certainly don’t see them as occupations of any lower station than that of tax collecting, fishing, or political activism, the original callings of a few of the most prominent church officials of the New Testament era.

In spite of this awkward passage, though, I admit that I’ve found Calvin quite helpful this year. I don’t want to raise any Catholics’ hackles, either, but I have to say that I found Calvin’s critique of papal supremacy pertinent, rational, scholarly, and in some ways quite generous – not final or authoritative by any means, but definitely helpful. He points out some things unsaid in Paul’s letter to the Romans and in his letters written from Rome that could well have been said had that Apostle recognized Peter as the supreme Vicar of Christ. He raises a question I’d never thought about concerning just how long Peter could have resided in Rome if he stayed in Jerusalem for a few years after the Ascension and then served as bishop of Antioch for a period. And he makes some arguments based on early church councils, not just about their findings, but about their structure.

Finally, he has me reading some letters of Gregory the Great that I would not have read otherwise. I’ve learned in the last week that many Catholics interpret these letters in a way opposed to Calvin’s, and that’s interesting to me, as well. As to my interpretation, I’ll just say that early Church history suggests to me that modern-day Catholics ascribe too much to the bishop of Rome, while Protestants (almost all of them, anyway) ascribe too little.

And there I am again in a familiar place: me against the rest of Christendom, when I so desperately only want to be with all the rest of Christendom. But what can I say? Here I stand.